ON DECEMBER 22, 2021, a fire ripped through the warehouse where artist Jesse Littlebird kept his painting studio in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood. Some $500,000 worth of works succumbed to the blaze. A few pieces— like Sainted White Wolf on the Beaten Path in the Valley, depicting a battle-weary wolf suspended between turquoise and orange color fields—survived. But the paintings now bear the tattoos of ceiling tar that melted and spilled onto them in the flames.
“It was a moment of pure abstraction, an act of randomness,” Littlebird says. “The constant is death and rebirth. You have to shed, purge, and start anew. But there’s still a grieving process. There were so many memories in that space. So much energy of creation and destruction.”
In January, the surviving paintings still smelled vaguely of woodsmoke as they hung on the walls of Secret Gallery. The art space resides in one of the Barelas neighborhood’s most storied buildings. A pink sign for B. Ruppe Drugs, just south of downtown on Fourth Street, points to the place of healing that stood as the longest continuously operating pharmacy in the Duke City until it shuttered in 2017. People who went to B. Ruppe were sick, vulnerable, and seeking aid—and they found it, whether in the form of aspirin or the traditional practices of the renowned healer who once operated there.
Now, as the home of Secret Gallery, B. Ruppe delivers a new kind of respite to artists like Littlebird. The exhibition space and gift shop, helmed by people of color, provide a venue for contemporary Southwest artists—many of them also people of color—to be their unvarnished selves, showing art that reflects their experiences in the region.
Being able to depict their lives authentically is a balm, they say, and their realities emerge in bold colors, inventive sculptures, and spirited events.
Program manager and curator Gabriel Gallegos, who also created the monthly Albuquerque Artwalk, founded Secret Gallery in 2019 with an exhibition at the nearby 505 Central building, before it became a food hall. He originally envisioned the project as ephemeral, with its 50-some collaborating artists staging immersive pop-up shows in vacant commercial spaces and moving on. Then the pandemic happened.
“There weren’t as many opportunities for artists and curators,” Gallegos says.
Secret Gallery put down roots at B. Ruppe in March 2020. In 1883, German immigrant Bernard Ruppe founded the medicinal store, which occupied several buildings before landing at its longtime home in 1965.
University of New Mexico pharmacy graduate Tom Sanchez bought the business in 1949, but it was best known for his sister-in-law Doña Maclovia Sanchez de Zamora. “Mac,” a natural healer, prescribed remedies using the traditional art of curanderismo at the pharmacy from 1981 until the drugstore’s closing in 2011.
Her plant-based remedios, from sassafras to white oak, hung on the wall next to shelves of tonic tablets, devotional candles, and toothpaste. Having heartburn? According to the recipe cards saved from the original store and now housed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Mac would recommend yerba buena, bananas, and rice. Heartache? A novena (nine days of prayers) would rid you of unwanted suitors.
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After Zamora’s death in 2017, the building was sold to Homewise, a nonprofit agency that aims to create community, in part through purchasing, renovating, and repurposing residential and commercial properties. The landmark property appealed to Homewise when the neighborhood feared B. Ruppe would be razed and redeveloped.
Monica Bencomo, the nonprofit’s community development coordinator, says that when Homewise acquired the building, it was filled with vintage pharmacy items. She led the effort to enshrine some of these artifacts in the Micro Museum, which occupies B. Ruppe’s back room and opens during Secret Gallery hours. The museum features a community library, a replica of Zamora’s herb displays, pharmaceutical and devotional items from the shop, and an ofrenda to Zamora that includes photos of the healer and notes from her patients. “To be around Mac is such a blessing,” reads one patient’s note from when the healer was alive. “She heals and nourishes your body and soul and leaves you a better human being and you don’t even know it’s happening.”
The building was woven into the community’s fabric; Homewise and Secret Gallery shared a desire to keep it that way.
Gallegos sees B. Ruppe as a place where he can make contemporary art accessible—especially because the historically working-class neighborhood isn’t traditionally thought of as an art destination. “This is not an area that makes much sense for a gallery model,” Gallegos says. “But we have to take risks as a creative space to encourage the artists to take creative risks.”
For the gallery’s artists, choosing reality over idealism in the state’s art market is a financial gambit. “Our artists offer an honest reflection of the community, not someone’s perception of it,” Gallegos says. “A lot of shows elsewhere are curated by out-of-state curators who have a romanticized notion of the Southwest. I wanted artists to be able to be themselves, not to have to fit a mold. I guess that’s the secret of Secret Gallery.”
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Social Distance, one of the first shows at Secret Gallery, in spring 2020, hung in the former pharmacy’s windows so it could be appreciated even during the pandemic’s early days. For the exhibition, photographers from IGers ABQ, a curated group photography account on Instagram, captured Albuquerque’s COVID-19 experience. “We kept seeing on the news what it was like in New York,” Gallegos says. “We wanted to show what it was like at the Sprouts grocery store on Lomas.”
The gallery’s raw aesthetic resonates with Littlebird (Laguna Pueblo), whose work meditates on displacement, identity, and home. “As an Indigenous artist, I come across the perceived expectation of what my work should be and represent,” Littlebird says. “I challenge that on the daily. I’m leveraging my identity to speak on broader concepts—and not just be pigeonholed into my identity.”
Helen Juliet Atkins, whose work regularly appears in the gift shop, headlined a February 2021 exhibition. “The true diversity of Albuquerque gets flattened into these stereotypes that we’re a tri-culture state,” says Atkins, who was raised in the Duke City and has Venezuelan heritage. “My personal experience is that there are so many different cultures from around the world here. It’s important to me and to my work to be honest and reflective of my cultural and socio-economic background. Secret Gallery is a welcoming space for that. And it’s organized by my peers. It’s nice to have some spaces that feel more homegrown.”
Gallegos granted Atkins artistic liberty for her show. “Sometimes when there’s a specific calling for a show, it’s very rigid,” Atkins says. “I felt free to explore whatever I wanted to. There’s a trust there.”
Her exhibition Fragility considered the earth’s future amid climate change, the pandemic, and the tenuous balance between the self and society. The works fused imagery from nature and civilization, such as palmlike flats of coral, made with ceramic, that emerge from the wall, cradling small, clear LED lights shaped like houses.
“Art can be healing for the person who’s doing it,” Atkins says. “Having the ability to interact with community around that is a communal healing experience.” Another exhibition she curated at Secret Gallery last fall, Cuerpo, featured interdisciplinary works from seven Albuquerque artists that explore the nuances of having a physical body.
B. Ruppe’s community status figures prominently in the artists’ minds. “To me, it feels like a holistic place with roots in the neighborhood,” Atkins says. “It’s holding space for tradition, culture, and diversity in the neighborhood, but it’s also inviting artists who aren’t necessarily from the neighborhood to showcase ideas. That cross-pollination is important.”
“We don’t want to take away from the history of this building or this neighborhood,” Gallegos says. “We want to add to it.”
Art to Soothe the Soul
Secret Gallery at B. Ruppe exhibits art shows on a rotating basis. The gallery’s website contains an image archive of past exhibitions. 807 4th St. SW, Albuquerque
April and May: Visionaries 2022
This exhibition features the work of Albuquerque high school students. It’s a follow-up to a similar 2021 exhibition, for which accomplished Southwest artists and curators juried 35 pieces.
June and July: Art of Eric Romero
Albuquerque artist Eric Romero’s oil paintings are inspired by history, New Mexico culture, and mysticism.